WESLACO — No one loved America more.
This is how family and friends of Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez described the Weslaco sailor who died on Saturday while aboard the USS Fitzgerald.
He was 26 and left behind a wife and son in Japan, where he had been stationed.
News of his death, one of seven as a result of a collision involving the U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Japan, has not only left the Rio Grande Valley community in a state of mourning over the loss of one of its own, but prompted reactions from state and federal officials, including U.S. Representatives Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Others who’ve offered words of comfort have been U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump.
City of Weslaco officials will also discuss plans on how to honor Hernandez locally.
Such attention is actually in contrast to the modesty Hernandez often exhibited, at least according to Aly Hernandez-Singer, the family spokesperson who described him as a patriot on Monday.
“I know for a fact that being in the Navy was his passion,” Hernandez-Singer said of her first cousin. “It was his life, and I believe that he was going to make a career out of it. He just loved Navy life and he was a very proud soldier. He was interesting because he never ever discussed politics with anybody, so I can’t even tell you what he believed in politically. All I can tell you is he loved this country passionately.”
She traces that patriotism back to his roots as a first-generation American. Their parents were immigrants, Hernandez-Singer explained, and he was proud of his heritage as well as being a U.S.-born citizen.
“He was devoted to America,” she said of Hernandez, who she referred to as a proud Latino with Guatemalan family members. “We’re very spicy, hot-tempered Latinos, and I’m very outspoken in my political views and can get very vulgar, but he was always so calm with me. He was always like, “Cuz, you need to tone it down. Calm down and look at it this way.’ He was always showing me this different perspective, and he always accepted everyone no matter whether we agreed with him or not.”
There was also an earnest quality to Hernandez’s faith and compassion for others that had family members at one point believing he was destined for priesthood.
“Seriously, he was very devoted to God and the church,” she added. “He was just so loving and kind, and he’d pray over you. That’s why we thought he’d grow up to be a priest, but he grew up to be a soldier instead. Everyone loved him because even though he was so smart, he was also a great kid. He was just an amazing person overall and had a very deep soul.”
The consensus among those who knew him as a teenager is that Hernandez exhibited the same values at Weslaco High School, where he graduated in 2009 after serving four years in the U.S. Army JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps).
Ascending the ranks to cadet major and executive officer, which is the second highest position in the unit, proved a natural progression for Hernandez. In fact, so impressive was Hernandez’s sense of duty that memories of his impact on instructors and students alike remain vivid today.
“He exhibited great leadership quality and skills, he was respected by the students, he was a hard worker and he was dedicated,” said Santiago Galarza, who was Hernandez’s JROTC senior Army instructor at the time. “He competed with the shooting team and did presentations with their rifles, and he was also in the Color Guard. He was just a very hardworking and dedicated individual.”
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Raul Garate, who was also one of Hernandez’s instructors, has similar impressions.
“He was always willing to serve no matter what needed to be done,” Garate said before recalling the pride Hernandez exhibited when returning to inform them that he had joined the U.S. Navy.
For Galarza, who likened Hernandez’s death to that of losing a child, there were few who loved the United States as much as his former student.
Galarza even remembers being taken aback by Hernandez’s maturity during a conversation about college scholarships, in which the then-instructor encouraged him to apply for scholarships to no avail. County came first.
“There was this heightened sense of patriotism he had when he said, ‘Well, I’ll do something for the country first, and then I’ll do something for me,’” Galarza recalled of Hernandez’s response. “This is a tragic moment for me. I had a connection to the individual and it hurts being that he was one of our students. Whether you want to or not, you really get connected to them where they become one of your children. So it feels like losing one of your children.”
Hernandez was one of seven sailors killed after the ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, collided with the USS Fitzgerald about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan on Saturday.
The time of the incident, however, has been somewhat in question with initial reports ranging from 1:30 to 2:30 a.m. It’s also been reported that the Philippine ship had made a u-turn and headed east just prior to colliding with the Fitzgerald.
Impact with the larger container ship was such that the Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, sustained flooding in the radio room, machinery and two berthing spaces, as well as what was described by the U.S. Navy as “serious damage” on the starboard side.
It was in the berthing areas where 116 of the nearly 300-member crew were housed and may have been asleep at the time of the incident. The seven sailors who lost their lives as a result of the collision were located in these flooded berthing compartments and transferred to Naval Hospital Yokosuka, where they were reportedly identified.
The Fitzgerald was assisted by two tug boats when returning to port 16 hours later.
“The damage included a significant impact under the ship’s pilothouse on the starboard side and a large puncture below the ship’s waterline, opening the hull to the sea,” Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said during a press conference on Sunday.
Aucoin went on to praise the crew’s “heroic efforts” to prevent further flooding, which could have sunk the destroyer.
“The crew navigated the ship into one of the busiest ports in the world with a magnetic compass and backup navigation equipment,” Aucoin said before also crediting Japanese allies for their support.
First on the scene was the Japan Coast Guard, which helped lead the search and rescue efforts.
Several investigations are currently underway and are individually headed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Japan’s Transport Safety Board and the Japan Coast Guard.